Boyd Martin ~ photo by Calina

“ULR” is sort of ammy-speak for “upper level rider”. It’s a reverent (or occasionally derogatory) term that is used on the chat boards and blogs to mean a rider that is light years ahead of you in terms of riding ability, who is living YOUR dream — with neat sponsorships, fancy new helmets and boots, beautiful talented horses, big wins, lots of swag with their names or stables embroidered on it, and who seem, somehow, to even breathe some sort of rare air we mere mortals can’t.

We all aspire to be better riders, but can’t do much more than dream about having a stable of keen horses to ride and a staff to get them ready and care for them, and do it all day, every day. What a cool deal to just have horses to ride for an occupation!

Well…the truth is….being a full time professional at an international level is lot, LOT more than wearing a cool helmet and having a stable full of horses to ride. I think it would be equivalent to being the CEO of a fairly dynamic small, but international, company that would have to pay very close attention to a small, highly trained staff with great responsibilities for expensive pieces of irreplaceable equipment (multi-million-dollar international level competition horses); manage a fairly small budget for the company and yet get in the high level competitions and requirements on a regular basis.

Do all of this at a moment’s notice; work with Mother Nature in an unpredictable outdoor sport; have to comply with regulations on salaries, farms and stable facilities management, DOT regulations on shipping and traveling with motor vehicles, deal with liabilities for students, horses, owners, activities like clinics, shows or events held on property owned or leased; and do it all with an eye toward who might comment on Facebook, Twitter or the bulletin board about it! And there are many more aspects I haven’t mentioned like billing, accounting, taxes, financing new horses, the list goes on. Really, if you spent a week or two at a ULR’s barn, you might want to modify that dream a bit!

Mary King taking the time to sign autographs

And within all those responsibilities, there is always the cream of the crop, the truly “upper” level riders that are not only great horsemen but great PEOPLE. They always seem to know that there are those out there that wish they could live their lives. Some do go out of their way to show they do care about the great unwashed horde of amateur riders out there in the back of beyond, hacking around a muddy paddock in a $50 saddle dreaming of Rolex.

Being great, talented horsemen doesn’t always bring with it the ability to be socially tactful or even polite, but it sure is nice if they are, and it means to the WORLD to an amateur. It may be very small to them to remember to thank a volunteer, or provide a compliment, but often to those of us who love to support our chosen sport – such comments, however small, sometimes provide a year’s worth of incentive to keep trying, keep living toward the day you can get the tiny piece of the dream on your side.

Let me tell you about a couple I’ve received. One year working in the warmup area of an international fall US event, we had several long holds on the cross-country course. This messes up everybody’s warmup and makes for a long day for everyone. While some riders were nervous and kept demanding updates on when they would be back going again, some just waited patiently. I kept coordinating with the radios to the officials and the starter until finally I had some information and was able to provide it to the riders back in warmup.  It was a tense hour, but it all ended O.K.

Afterwards, when all the riders had gone, and I was alone, cleaning up the grease gloves in the field, and getting ready to leave, one of the riders made a special point of driving past on his way back from picking up equipment. He stopped, rolled down the window and thanked me for my help during the hold and complimented me personally. I’ll NEVER forget that small act of generosity. My sore feet, my aching back, all went away with just that one comment and smile. It is what keeps us coming back every year.

Another kind moment comes from many riders who very graciously thank us volunteers while they are on their way to the start box. I know a little bit about what these guys face out there in terms of courage and strength and it’s a huge, huge deal to me that a rider just about ready to tackle a huge three-star international cross country course even can gather their thoughts to consider a volunteer nearby, let alone give them a compliment. Hats off to those riders, you’re fabulous in my book.

This year, an international level rider publicly complimented a cross country course that I help to decorate and prepare, and that remark will encourage us for the next year or two or three! We’ll remember that encouragement when we take the extra time to make the fence just right – to plant one more pansy – to repaint that jump and not miss a single spot – to lift and place just one more mum – stack and carry one more garbage can, walk just one more fence post to pick up or string out galloping lane, use our car headlights to get the dressage letters just right in the dark after working all day on the arenas and courses.

And those are just a few small examples that have happened to me personally. There are many, many more. For instance, many upper level riders generously donate lessons and time to help out fellow riders or equestrian related charities. Keep an eye out for these — they are great ways to get good lessons with top riders, and support a charitable program, too. And many donate hours and hours of time on committees and organizations, discussing rules and helping guide our sports.

Phillip Dutton and Fernhill Eagle at Fair Hill International, 2012. Phillip gives of his time to committees, teaches Event Camp each summer welcoming junior and amateur riders to his farm, and donates lessons to help out charities and fundraisers.

So much of what we do here in North America relies on volunteer help for our international level events and competitions, so the stimulation doesn’t come from money – from being paid. It comes from nice people who appreciate our volunteerism and from the camaraderie of working together with others to create a special event that makes everyone feel as though they have accomplished something. Compliments are our only pay.

And we take away a lot more than a compliment; I know I enjoy watching good riders school horses and compete them because it helps me ride better and create better horsemanship when I am at home hacking my horses. Good horsemanship and good riding rubs off. That’s a great gift, perhaps as great as being appreciated, or maybe even more because it helps our horses to live a better, more understood life, as we ask them to perform for us.

There are two words very close together that describe this ULR/ammy dynamic – “envy” and “empathy”. I think that most of the time if our little horse world could get closer to the empathy and further from the envy, we’d have the balance and harmony we need between the two groups. Our horses will benefit!